SAAC In Action: Wake Forest Field Hockey Senior Started Maria Whitehead Fund For Melanoma Research

Oct. 13, 2010

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    If you ask any player on the Wake Forest field hockey team what the #5 means to them, you will be listening to stories of inspiration for hours. Although the jersey #5 has been absent from the team roster for four years now, it is very present in their hearts because of the player who wore it, Maria Whitehead.

    Senior Forward, Liza Casella’s story about how she was impacted by #5 is just one of many, but it is one definitely worth sharing.

    “Have you ever met someone who instantly made an impact on your life?” Liza asked as she tried to put into words the influence of Maria Whitehead.

    Liza Casella and Maria Whitehead only physically crossed paths one time. “It’s kind of strange how I first met Maria. I was in the 8th grade at the time and went to a field hockey camp in New Hampshire directed by the Princeton coaching staff. She was my night team coach.” Liza went on to talk about how Maria quickly became the camp’s favorite coach. “She was so energetic and loud and always in a good mood. As a young aspiring hockey player I thought she was amazing.”

    What Liza didn’t realize at the time was that Maria Whitehead would be a huge part of her future. Liza now shares the same field, coaches, locker room, study hall, class rooms and professors as Maria did when she was a student athlete at Wake Forest. “It’s funny the paths you unknowingly cross throughout your life. And it’s even crazier to think about how the first time I met Maria would be the last.”

    As Liza started to explain more about Maria Whitehead, it became more and more evident that Maria was not a one-time person, she was a life-time person. She was not just some all-star player who played at Wake Forest at one-time. Nor was she just some really cool role model and camp coach one-time at a summer camp. The impression she has made on others lasts a life-time. “That summer at camp was only just a taste of what I would soon come to know about her,” Liza spoke as if Maria was one of her closest relatives. “She was a beacon of courage for her teammates. Maria helped build the framework for the program that remains today. She was the pulse of the team. She had a passion for the game and for her teammates and for life that cannot be matched. She embodied strength and the will to win.” And win is exactly what Maria’s team did, winning Wake Forest’s first field hockey ACC and National Championship in her senior year.

    On, November 1st, 2006, Maria Whitehead passed away from melanoma cancer. She was twenty five years old. And though all who knew her still mourn their loss, they also celebrate her life.

    To celebrate is why Liza Casella founded Wake Forest’s very first Dodge and Donate dodge ball tournament last April. The tournament was to raise both awareness and money for melanoma research. “I thought about what I wanted to leave as my legacy at Wake Forest. That's when I thought of Maria. For years our team has always played intramural dodge ball. We always took it too seriously, but it was a fun way for us to compete together for something outside of our sport. I chose dodge ball because it has always been such a fun past time for our team. Maria has had such an enormous impact on the players that have come through the field hockey program, and I wanted to be able to share a little bit about her with the rest of campus.”

    Liza purposely planned the event to take place during the field hockey team’s alumni weekend so that all who knew Maria could share in the fun of preserving her legacy. Because of her initiative the Maria Whitehead Fund for Melanoma Research is now in place at the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center and more people on Wake Forest’s campus are being touched by #5.

    Liza is planning to organize the 2nd annual dodge ball tournament for melanoma research this coming spring. “I hope to pass down the tradition to players who will continue to preserve Maria’s legacy. After I graduate, I hope I can come back for alumni weekend and participate in this very tournament for many years to come.”